On June 15, 2001, Hindi film fans found their gluteal muscles severely tested. This Friday unlike few others in the annals of showbiz saw two epic-length period dramas with patriotic themes compete at the box office.
Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India clocked in at 224 minutes. By contrast, Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha was a mere 176 minutes. Despite their run time, both movies achieved blockbuster status.
Although vastly different from each another, the films shared some elements. Each kicked off the new millennium by revisiting the past; each played on nationalistic sentiment; each starred a dynast as a brave and virtuous hero willing to go to extreme lengths to serve his country.
While Lagaan sought to reassure Indians that the freedom struggle was worth it, Gadar focused on the human cost of independence from the British. Twenty years later, as Hindi cinema faces unending trolling and censorship stemming from intolerance, and as filmmakers and actors are being asked to prove their patriotic credentials, Lagaan and Gadar resonate in possibly unintended ways.
On the scale of chest-thumping nationalism, Lagaan is several degrees lower than the Partition-era Gadar. Gowariker’s third film after the inconsequential Pehla Nasha and Baazi is an old-fashioned movie with a morally upright hero who appear to have walked out of a 1950s set. Lagaan is equal parts underdog saga, romance, civics lecture – and cricket.
The story plays out in 1893, the same year that the young Gujarati lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi left Bombay for South Africa. Gandhi would spent another 21 years in South Africa, laying the groundwork for his later non-violent campaign against British rule.
Meanwhile in the fictional village Champaner, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) comes up with a proto-version of satyagraha. As the drought-hit Champaner reels from back-breaking land tax laws, Bhuvan hands the British a wager: if we defeat you in cricket, the tax will be abolished.
Bhuvan is Gandhi before Gandhi as well as Nehru before Nehru (the latter was four years old when Bhuvan first picked up a cricket bat). Bhuvan sets up a multi-faith and multi-caste team that triumphs against a series of obstacles. Aided by his girlfriend Gauri (Gracy Singh) and Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), the sister of the cruel British captain who is in love with Bhuvan, the determined dhoti-clad gent swings a bat at his oppressors.
The lavishly mounted plot benefits from a millennial-age attention to filmmaking techniques, cinematography, production design and costumes. AR Rahman provides the rousing score, while the lyrics by Javed Akhtar emphasise the need for unity amidst diversity. Lagaan was submitted as India’s entry for the foreign language Oscar category, and managed to make the shortlist.
Gadar, meanwhile was inspired by the legend of Boota Singh, the Ludhiana resident who married a Muslim woman named Zainab during the Partition violence. When Zainab was repatriated to Pakistan some years later, Boota Singh followed her there. Despite agreeing to convert to Islam, Boota Singh was disavowed by Zainab, which drove him to suicide.
The tragic story had already resulted in Manoj Punj’s Punjabi production Shaheed-e-Mohabbat Boota Singh in 1999, starring Gurdaas Maan and Divya Dutta. Gadar director Anil Sharma used this cautionary tale of perfidy to take potshots at Pakistan. The Kargil war between India and Pakistan had taken place only two years before, inspiring a rash of nationalistic films in the 2000s. Gadar might have gone back in time, but its anti-Pakistan view firmly belonged to the period in which the movie was produced.
Sharma’s previous movies included the hit Hukumat and the farcical Tahalka (remembered chiefly for giving us Amrish Puri’s vaguely Chinese villain Dongrila and Naseeruddin Shah, Aditya Pancholi and Javed Jaffrey posing as women in swimsuits.)
In Gadar, the British and the Muslims who have chosen to leave India are the chief villains in the romance between Tara Singh (Sunny Deol) and Sakina (Ameesha Patel).
Gadar opens in the middle of the cataclysmic violence of Partition. Tara Singh is among the rioters incensed at the slaughter of Sikhs and Hindus as they attempt to flee the newly created state of Pakistan and seek refuge in India. Tara Singh bloodies his sword at Amritsar railway station, but pauses when he sees Sakina, the daughter of a wealthy Muslim businessman with whom Tara Singh has been in love in the past.
Tara Singh marries Sakina to protect her from a mob. He initially calls Sakina “Madam Ji”, but an unshakable bond develops between the earthy Sikh and the aristocratic Muslim.
While Bhuvan waved his cricket bat at the British, Tara Singh raises a hand pump against the Pakistanis. In Gadar’s most iconic (and parodied) sequence, Tara Singh uproots a hand pump to use as a weapon against oncoming Pakistanis, including Sakina’s obdurate father (Amrish Puri). They have been urging Tara Singh to declare that he hates India. Tara Singh has agreed to convert to Islam, but he will never betray his country.
In another moment that is deadly serious as well as possibly intentionally funny, a member of a mob that has attacked Tara Singh’s house in Punjab yells at the burly truck driver to scare him off. Tara Singh’s thundering counter-yell is Godzilla-like in its intensity.
Crude in production values and unrelenting in its portrayal of Pakistanis as being inherently evil, Gadar doesn’t share Lagaan’s inclusive version of patriotism. Despite such statements as “hate destroys everything” and “the most important religion is humanity”, Gadar goes straight for the jugular.
Sharma followed up Gadar with the similarly bellicose The Hero: Love Story of a Spy, starring Sunny Deol as an espionage agent, and Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyo, which had the 1971 Indo-Pak war and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir as its subjects.
After Lagaan, Gowariker pursued his own brand of soft nationalism in Swades, the historical Jodhaa Akbar, and the freedom struggle-era Khele Hum Jee Jaan Sey. The ambition to make epics on grand canvases with A-list actors appears to have been sown with Lagaan, as revealed by Satyajit Bhatkal’s documentary Madness in the Desert.
The film on the making of Lagaan – Bhatkal was among the crew members – speaks about the commitment of Gowariker and Khan to create an all-time-great entertainer. Madness in the Desert, which is available on Netflix until February 24, itself clocks 140 minutes.
It is going to be one hell of a job to produce this film, Khan says in the documentary. From minor problems (should Bhuvan have a moustache?) to major challenges (organising thousands of extras for the extended cricket match), the documentary highlights the efforts behind a movie that knew even as it was being made that it was going to be special.
Gadar too doesn’t lack ambition. It doesn’t have Lagaan’s scale and sweep or snob value. But in its own way, Gadar crashes the small sub-category of films about the Partition. There are far better examinations of this event and its aftermath – MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava, Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani, Ritwik Ghatak’s films in Bengali. And yet, Gadar made the most money and continues to be regarded as one of the most revealing films about the sundering of India in 1947.
In today’s ultra-nationalistic and hyper-real times, Lagaan seems like the anachronism and Gadar the norm. Lagaan’s “Once Upon a Time in India” promise has come true in a bizarre fashion. Bhuvan’s earnestness and community spirit appear more old-fashioned than they already were in 2001. The simplistic handling of deep-seated social schisms is even less convincing. The assertion that the love-struck Elizabeth never married after she left India indicates that while unity and tolerance came to Champaner, feminism got left far behind.
Gadar’s anti-Pakistan rhetoric, which mirrored the post-Kargil period, has only grown more vehement over the years. Beyond the screen, the creation of Pakistan and the supposed betrayal by Muslims in 1947 continue to cast shadows over the treatment of India’s biggest minority community.
The rivalry between Lagaan and Gadar went all the way to the Filmfare Awards in 2002. Each film was tied at nine nominations. Lagaan had its equivalent of Bhuvan’s match-winning six runs by winning in the categories of best film, director, story, actor, music director, lyricist and male and female playback singers. Gadar was shut out of the Filmfares, picking up only a special award for Ameesha Patel and Best Action for Tinnu Verma.
The most-nominated movie that year, Karan Johar’s overwrought – and 210 minute-long – family drama Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, got five awards, including one for “Best Scene”. Surely that honour should have gone to Tara Singh’s hand pump moment?